In my last worldbuilding post, I used the example of a gallows in the town square, and talked about how pointed details can accomplish much more in establishing the setting of your story than pages of gratuitous details.
Not only does that gallows set a tone quickly, but it is a function in the story world itself that screams conflict. Too many stories ramble on, and we are not sure what the characters want, and the conflict is not all that clear or gripping. Your story world itself ought to be reeking with conflict.
This does not mean we all have to write dystopias with gallows in the town square. It doesn’t mean we use weather either: it was a dark and stormy night, etc. It could be any setting element.
Think the Fault in Our Stars. In the opening, we have a bunch of kids meeting for cancer-patient awareness. That is a situational setting that immediately gives us conflict. A girl meets a cute, charming boy at such a meeting, and we already know something bad will happen. Cancer means conflict.
It can be relational or familial. In Alice Hoffman’s novel The Story Sisters, we open with three sisters in Central Park, in conflict over what to do about a mistreated carriage-horse, to leave it in mistreatment or steal it in order to rescue it. Two of the sisters are divided, and one is caught in between her two elder sisters. The eldest and the youngest do steal the horse, ignoring the warnings of the middle sister. Everything goes wrong. The youngest breaks both her arms. And we have a setting of sisterly conflict that goes on and on throughout the story. If the setting had been their living room, it would have been a lot more trivial conflict. Fighting over what game to play.
This inherent conflict can be accomplished in so many ways. It can be a setting of two warring families like Romeo and Juliet. It can be a small mining town where the government is trying to shut things down to be more eco-friendly. Don’t settle, write conflict right into the setting.
Just think if J.K. Rowling hadn’t implemented the House system at Hogwarts, and Harry just had a rivalry with another rather mean-spirited student. Instead, Harry and Malfoy become part of an age-old rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and they have many official school activities that help fuel this rivalry: Quidditch and the House Cup. Conflict is written into the system of the school.
What sort of conflict is there built in to the setting of your novel? Not sure?
Start thinking about it.
Your setting is not just the place and time and situation where your story takes place. It can be an endless source of conflict.
Don’t be afraid to set scenes in more memorable settings either. Have a lot of scenes occurring in living rooms and kitchens? Take us somewhere more interesting, where things can happen, and maybe where there can be an emaciated carriage-horse to quarrel over, or even a war.
Have lovers who are going to have a fight on their date? Set it in a restaurant? Typical. Not very interesting. How about on a sailboat caught in a storm instead?
I am not saying you can’t have scenes in living rooms or restaurants. But don’t be afraid to let your creativity flow either. Interesting characters generally don’t sit around; they go places where action can take place, and where there will be conflict.
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? To shake up a character’s world with conflict and get them out of their comfort zone and into the world where there are stories waiting to happen.